Miscellaneous Titles

A page for single titles whose artists don’t have their own pages. (Yet.)

Current residents: Derek Bailey, Iain Ballamy, Kenny Barron, Gary Burton, Michel Camilo, Deodato, Paul Desmond, Eric Dolphy, Gil Evans, Grant Green, Charlie Haden, Steve Howe, Mark Isham, Milt Jackson, Rodney Kendrick, Roland Kirk, John McLaughlin, Medeski Martin and Wood, Pat Metheny, Modern Jazz Quartet, Oregon, Duke Pearson, Terje Rypdal, Matthew Shipp, Pete LaRoca Sims, Cecil Taylor, John Taylor, Larry Young.

Derek Bailey
2002 / Tzadik

Had Jackson Pollock unveiled a still-life circa 1954, we’d have a fair analog to this album. Avant guitarist Bailey rendering standards after years spent in the free-improv underworld is a startling anomaly, but he did start out, way back when, playing by the rules. (Ditto Pollock.) Bailey’s liner note comment addresses the inevitable question: “I thought maybe there’s something there.” All right, then. The fundamental “something” that Bailey finds in the likes of “Stella By Starlight” and “Body and Soul” is hardly new - an impetus to play, a launching pad for individual invention. Yet Bailey’s inventions, as always, defy custom. Faithful theme readings give way to spiky harmonics, microtonal dissonances, and isolated rhythmic cells. Any hint of chord cycling or melodic development is in the next aisle, filed under Jim Hall. Bailey can sound like a random noise generator in his study of shapes, intervals, and density. The logic of these solo improvisations becomes more apparent with each listen, although they shed little light on the source material.

Ballads is not an about face, nor is it a sly send-up courtesy of exec producer John Zorn. It’s a chance to hear Bailey’s guitar (acoustic, did I mention?) up close, accessing tradition but shunning its methods. Purists are warned away, and improv converts might enjoy this temporary bridge between the “old” and the immediate.

Iain Ballamy
All Men Amen
1994 / B&W Music

Heavy on ballads, this album from British saxophonist Iain Ballamy (alto, tenor, soprano) makes pleasant background music for the most part. Ballamy doesn’t drip sap, but neither do these compositions command as much attention as one might expect, considering the mischievous company of Django Bates (piano), Steve Watts (bass), and Martin France (drums). The most excited they get is in the playful step of “Serendipity” and the polite deconstruction of “Haunted Swing”. The rest of the time, they play exquisitely within tunes that seem to evaporate despite subtle complexities (“Blennie”, “Oaxaca”). I’ve owned this CD since it came out and I still can’t remember how half the tunes go unless I’m listening to it. There are two exceptions, though, one being the title track, which drifts on a beautiful bed of stacked saxes and develops a reflective melody. The other is “Meadow”, the melody and bassline of which are impossible to forget, and where Ballamy and Bates (doubling on E-flat horn) engage in casual dialogue. Ballamy’s lyrical command is admirable, yet this disc mostly gets entangled in its own scenery and doesn’t hint at Iain and Django’s wilder sides.

Kenny Barron & Charlie Haden
Night and the City
Sept. 1996 / Verve

This album plays up the romantic notion of a quiet jazz performance held within a sanctuary of alcohol and hushed tones while the city outside clangs through overnight motions. Night and the City culls tunes from Barron and Haden’s duo gig at NYC’s Iridium, leaning toward well-known standards and a couple of originals. Bassist Haden has deep respect for melody (“Body and Soul”) and a slightly askew rhythmic sense, where he skirts the beat but doesn’t lose it. It makes good support for Barron’s flawless pianisms, which cover a lot of ground and leave the listener wanting nothing.

The eerie opening flourishes of Barron’s “Twilight Song” set a nice atmosphere, and the tunes continue to breathe naturally as mood dictates. The highlight “Spring Is Here” is propelled by Haden’s hypnotic octave pulse and Barron’s chord melody. In contrast, “For Heaven’s Sake” and “Waltz for Ruth” make use of boppish elegance. “The Very Thought of You” displays a bit of improvisational osmosis, as Barron’s solo drifts imperceptibly into Haden’s. Music this intimate doesn’t reach out and grab you, but there’s plenty to sink into. Throughout, we can occasionally hear the ambient clinking of a club full of rapt patrons, and this perhaps is the point of the album’s concept, more so than the poetic liner notes or O’Keefe cover painting. In effect, the listeners have joined the musicians in a vibrant if understated communion. Unlike most other rituals, it offers more in the way of subtle surprise instead of knowing what’s coming next.

Gary Burton
Like Minds
Dec. 1997 / Concord

It’s hard to book more eloquence and experience than this modern summit session with Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Roy Haynes. Burton is the picture of ease on vibraphone, and with the dulcet guitar tones of Pat on the one hand, and Chick’s verbose piano on the other, it’s the ideal record for note-aholics. Holland is buried underneath, while Haynes’ drums cut through and provide the only sharp edges to be heard. Good thing, too, as the whole threatens to get too smooth at points.

Material comes from the front line. Pat leads the way with “Question and Answer”, a great tune that he previously recorded with Dave and Roy, and it comes across very well here. His new piece “Elucidation” challenges the group with a brisk chord sequence, and Pat also brings the drippy stuff, like “Tears of Rain”, the kind of folksy back-porch jazz that might put Type-As to sleep. Corea pitches in a couple of oldies, “Windows” and “Straight Up and Down”, the former a delight as always, and the latter provoking bright swing and acute solos. The title track is the better of Burton’s two tunes, sounding tailor made for Corea. The two men, after all, were not unfamiliar as duet partners, and they do display like minds at times.

The playing is super slick, almost to a fault. These guys are too good. The album is a congress of giant peers, and they intermingle as one might expect. Metheny has his favored licks in place - including the descending major-thirds followed by the ascending intervallic run - and Burton and Corea play off their duet experience. This tightrope music sounds safer than it is, and if that paradox appeals to you as much as any two of the names on the album cover, check it out.

Michel Camilo
Jan. 1993 / Columbia

Camilo is a highly skilled Latin-jazz pianist who leans toward heavy chords and rhythmic workouts, and he also throws in a few nice melodies and impressionistic moments to soften things up. I first encountered him in the film Calle 54 and then on this trio disc with bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Dave Weckl, who slightly Americanize Camilo’s music despite their proficiency in global grooves. Jackson’s ace, as usual, but I’ve never gotten much from the drummer, whose tendency to be as slickly complicated as possible has always turned me off. That being said, Weckl doesn’t just follow Camilo’s formidable twists beat for beat (“El Realejo”, “As One”), which would be challenging enough, but he plays around them as well, and that’s an admirable feat.

Notable tracks include a devious rendition of Duke’s “Caravan” and the uplifting “Blacky”. Lovely chords, an understated beat, and a terrific piano solo take the title track to a special place. The finale “From Within” begins with a romantic Spanish theme that turns into a thrilling jam spearheaded by Camilo’s riffs, and it builds into two climaxes. These four tracks justify the album’s cost by themselves. Other entries pass me by, like the happy “Tropical Jam” (too consonant) or “Albertina” (too straightforwardly bluesy), and the precise up and down figures of “As One” remind me that I prefer seduction to force in a piano trio. Nevertheless, Camilo’s command of the keyboard keeps the interest level high throughout.

Eumir Deodato
1972 / CTI Records

No shortage of 1970s commercial appeal on this disc from keyboardist and arranger Eumir Deodato, given the electric piano, strings, funky beats, soft horn melodies, Strauss and Debussy sent out on the dance floor, and so forth, yet it also contains enough enticing musicality to stand as a minor classic. (And with gents like Ron Carter and Billy Cobham on board, the rhythms aren’t cheap.) The most known track is the groovy rendition of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” that surpasses novelty to become a valid if not overly serious fusion of funk, classical, and jazz. Likewise, the arrangement of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” alternates the faithful flute theme with an unrelated vamp section and sounds just as nice. Most of the rest of the album drifts breezily by (“Spirit of Summer”, “Carly and Carole”, a danceable read of “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads”), while the closer “September 13”, co-written by drummer Cobham, takes a slick riff into slightly more aggressive territory. Though this music may be light and gauzy compared to the heavy fusion hitters of its decade, it’s fun for what it is, and the 1997 remaster sounds wonderful.

Paul Desmond
Take Ten
June 1963 / RCA Victor

Sometimes you just need a little Desmond - that light, floating alto sax that breathes every note into the right spot. On the surface, Desmond seems like a very relaxed player, but such smart phrasing indicates a quick mind, even if he doesn’t generate heat like Bird or Cannonball. This quartet record with guitarist Jim Hall is one of a few that Desmond made while moonlighting from the Brubeck gig. The title track rewrites the popular “Take Five”, albeit with a more inquisitive melody and a darker solo section. After that come a couple of light-hearted standards (“Alone Together”, “Nancy”) interspersed with a few bossa nova selections that tend to blur together, like “El Prince” and “Embarcadero”. The latter sounds vaguely like “Autumn Leaves”, though it has an unexpected major-chord resolution. Desmond is well suited to the polite drive of the bossa beat; it buys him time between phrases and gives him a variety of accents to stress, as can be heard in the percolations of “Theme from Black Orpheus”. On the other hand, “The One I Love” and “Out of Nowhere” swing in a straight manner and Desmond and Hall let loose. Likeable and mostly laid back, this album gives the Brubeck fan a slightly different perspective on their star saxophonist.

Eric Dolphy
Out To Lunch
Feb. 1964 / Blue Note RVG

The neighing, whinnying, bleating, groaning bass clarinet of the opening “Hat and Beard” gives fair warning of just how irritating this record is. Dolphy had made a singular name for himself on Prestige, and also within the bands of Mingus and Coltrane. Primarily an altoist (who rivals Ornette Coleman for ear-bending sonorities), with sojourns on flute and bass clarinet to match, Dolphy bridges out-bop to the avant-garde, always treating material with utter spontaneity. His sole Blue Note title is a challenging, crowning effort of all original material played by a modern team: Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams.

“Hat and Beard” marches a merry way, with Davis and Williams agreeing on everything except a traditional beat, Hutch scenting the air with spare vibes, and Freddie Hubbard, well, being Freddie. He comports himself “out there” with a combination of bop pyrotechnics and low-register blatting. Dolphy pushes the bass clarinet to its limits in a whimsical solo. “Something Sweet, Something Tender” features the same instrument, often in tandem with Davis’ fat bass, and the track is dirge-like as well as tender. “Gazzeloni” entangles flute and vibes in an abstract theme. Hutcherson’s solo eggs Tony into aggressive action - listening to this portion of the drum track in isolation, you’d swear it was from Filles de Kilimanjaro or something. The head to “Out to Lunch”, rendered by Dolphy on alto, twists like a snake. “Straight Up and Down” is a bloody annoying theme for alto and trumpet in pitchy unison, sounding like circus music from hell. The solos and swing redeem the tune in part.

On the formal and interactive levels, the album is a success. Regarding the crucial contributions of Hutcherson, Davis, and Williams, it’s important to note that they are not just updating or abstracting modern bop accompaniment - they’re actually creating a new model of support customized to the material in question. Meanwhile, Dolphy’s playing is bold and passionate, if not exactly pleasing or immediately logical. Personally, I’ve struggled with Dolphy here and elsewhere. I admire his virtuosity, yet his sound is often a subjective barrier. But that’s irrelevant to the objective merits of this record.

Gil Evans
Out of the Cool
Nov-Dec 1960 / Impulse

Coming on the heels of successful collaborations with Miles Davis, this album reasserts Gil Evans as his own man. Surrounded by a crack jazz orchestra including Johnny Coles (who, incidentally, sounds similar to Miles on this record), Jimmy Knepper, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones, the arranger/pianist moves out of the cool and into the groove. For anyone who ever said that Gil didn’t understand swing, the opening “La Nevada” provides comeuppance, from the little piano lick at the beginning to the momentum that builds over its duration. After that, “Where Flamingos Fly” and “Bilbao Song” are reconstructed with beautifully dissonant colors and mournful lead statements. “Stratusphunk” is probably the most entertaining track of all; Evans layers the roly-poly main line to humorous effect, accelerates for the solos, and then lowers the temperature again. The closing “Sunken Treasure” has some flaws (notice the edits) but effectively roams a desolate area, topped by Coles’ milesian anguish. There really isn’t a dull moment on the album from start to finish.

Out of the Cool was first remastered on CD in 1996 - right around the time of the Miles/Gil Columbia boxset, in fact - and is now available in the Impulse Originals series. The 2007 edition misses the bonus track “Sister Sadie” and the informative booklet of the previous package, but the five main tracks satisfy by themselves, and the sound is great. Even though this is my Gil Evans album of reviewing choice, there are others worth exploring. In 2006, Blue Note combined New Bottle, Old Wine and Great Jazz Standards into The Complete Pacific Jazz Sessions, which is pretty dandy but sounds less modern (to me, at least) than Out of the Cool. To hear how Evans kept current in the 1970s, try Svengali.

Grant Green
Idle Moments
Nov. 1963 / Blue Note RVG

This semi-modernized blowing session for sextet is one of guitarist Green’s more interesting albums. Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson are featured on tenor and vibes, while Duke Pearson, Bob Cranshaw, and Al Harewood cover rhythm duties. Add Green on guitar, and you’ve got a lot of voices in the room. The modern bits come in Green’s “Jean De Fleur” and Pearson’s “Nomad”, both of which have harmonic tracts ahead of their time, and the sprightly melodies forecast Pat Metheny, for want of a better comparison. “Nomad” rolls on for twelve minutes with good turns from Henderson and Hutch, and Green is escalated from his usual settings. Great piece. “Jean De Fleur” is more insistent and compact. In “Django”, Green returns to his earthy roots and the band wallows in melancholy.

The centerpiece is the quarter-hour “Idle Moments”, a meditative Pearson theme. The liner notes explain how the track went on much longer than intended, due to a misunderstanding of what constituted one chorus length: 16 or 32 bars? The piece tip-toes forth like a midnight snacker trying not to wake anyone else in the house. Green plays with nice, bluesy simplicity, but Henderson’s solo gets the gold star. The tenor blows at barely above a whisper, spinning each phrase into a delicate thread. The understatement makes it a major statement and one of his very best solos anywhere. Anyway, for the material and cast of characters, this album is borderline must-hear. Two bonus alternate takes extend the goodness.

Charlie Haden
The Montreal Tapes (featuring Joe Henderson)
Released 2004 / Verve

What a joy it is to hear Joe Henderson again. The disc begins with the unaccompanied tenor tracing a chorus of “Round Midnight”, his patented nuances in place. When Henderson passed in 2001, jazz lost a distinctive voice, leaving us only the potential of posthumous releases like this to augment his legacy. The recording dates from bassist Haden’s weeklong stint at a Montreal jazzfest in 1989, from which other trio encounters have also been released. Opening night featured Henderson, Haden, and drummer Al Foster, a simpatico lineup.

The four selections explore some of the linear free association that Haden purveyed with Ornette way back when. “In the Moment” goes left field in its first few minutes, eventually morphing into solid swing. Henderson personalizes “Round Midnight” with the same slithery phrasing he always brought to it, while he stamps “Passport” with Rollins-like zeal. Haden steps out on a couple of occasions, but he’s at his best behind Joe, as both men have warm tones that mesh wonderfully together. Foster’s drumming fits like a glove and his intelligent solos draw deserved ovations. My only complaint is leveled at the recording, which suffers at times from a distant soundstage. Surely someone could have sat at a mixing desk and brought the connections of this trio into clearer focus. So, some assembly required, but otherwise a good record.

(By the way, of Haden’s other Montreal Tapes recordings, I prefer the one with Geri Allen and Paul Motian.)

Steve Howe Trio
The Haunted Melody
Oct. 2007 / Howesound

I had a big smile on my face on first hearing this, Steve Howe’s belated plunge into jazz. He’s not really a jazz guitarist, but as far back as his early days in Yes, one could detect the influences of Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, et al, in his dipsy-doodle solos, and it’s nice to hear him bring that style (on his legendary Gibson ES-175) into a traditional context. Of course, he still sounds like Steve Howe, no matter what - skittery, jittery, scurrying around cliches like a coffee-buzzed rabbit, occasionally fumbling on the strings in his quest for the next creative phrase. Howe’s off-center lines are more than cushioned by the proficient support of Ross Stanley (organ) and son Dylan Howe (drums). The tunes include a few covers (the terrific kickoff “Kenny’s Sound”, “Blue Bash”, Roland Kirk’s pensive title track) and some reworked originals, like “Momenta”, a hypnotic three-chord wonder, and “Sweet Thunder”, whose friendly figurations bring the album to a close. Howe also jazzes up some Yes pieces, including an improbably swinging “Mood for a Day” that catches every twist of the original solo guitar piece, and “Siberian Khatru”, which was already a swinging number to begin with. I’m not as sold on “Close to the Edge”, which mostly just repeats one of the opening riffs ad infinitum, but it does garner some of the trio’s most emphatic playing. Howe’s unaccompanied acoustic solo “Laughing with Larry” is in the “Ram” / “Clap” vein, and while nice, it doesn’t necessarily fit with the other tracks. In the end, Howe is no competition for fulltime jazz guitarists, but he’s got a one of a kind style on his side, and the purity of this format makes an appealing contrast to his ongoing rock revues. Plus, the young lions contribute much, and “Kenny’s Sound” and “Siberian Khatru” still earn a smile every time.

Mark Isham
Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project
Rec. 1996, rel. 1999 / Columbia

Tributes to Miles’ electric era sometimes leave me puzzled. What exactly are the performers trying to get out of such loose, player-specific music? Is it some elaborate fantasy to pretend they’re in the 1970 studio with Miles and Teo? For sure, it’s a more vague job than diving into “Ah Leu Cha” or “Footprints”, and reproducing atmosphere is not easy. Regardless, trumpeter Mark Isham – not best known for doing this sort of thing – takes a good stab at Miles’ dark ages. His tone is more robust than Davis, but he shares a similar spaciousness and knack for repeating cool motifs, so he earns the role, remarkably so at times. Backed by two guitars (Peter Maunu, Steve Cardenas, both effects-laden) and rhythm battery (Doug Lunn and Michael Barsimanto), Isham brings a new sense of adventure to the music. “Spanish Key” grooves under Milesian shrewdness, recedes into a haze, and roars at the end into a heroic climax. “It’s About That Time” milks muted suspense before boarding the fortissimo F7 riff. Elsewhere are compact funk pieces (“Ife”, the original “Internet”), out and out rockers (“Right Off”, a wah-happy “Black Satin”), and a couple of ambient moods, like the leadoff “In a Silent Way” that includes a disembodied kiss of “Milestones”. I dig the loop-possessed “Great Expectations”, too. A couple of cuts are expendable, and maybe the guitars get wanky in a couple places, but I think the overall contemporary relevance mostly justifies Isham’s efforts.

Milt Jackson
Wizard of the Vibes
July 1948 & Apr. 1952 / Blue Note RVG

The 1952 session features John Lewis, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke (sound familiar?) as the rhythm team, with Lou Donaldson adding alto sax to a few tunes. They play six pieces, three of which are doubled in alternate takes. In the romance of “Lillie” and “What’s New”, the uptempo bop of “On the Scene”, and the classic blues “Bags’ Groove”, Jackson’s vibraphone is never less than infectious. His phrasing is so slick that it’s easy to take him for granted as a soloist, but Milt is an outstanding mind at work. Donaldson’s happy alto comes to the fore on a couple of tracks (notably “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) to break up the vibes-piano dominance.

The last half of the disc features a meeting with Thelonious Monk in 1948. (Bass and drums are John Simmons and Shadow Wilson.) Here are eerie first versions of “Misterioso”, “I Mean You”, “Evidence”, and “Epistrophy”, Monk warhorses all. Jackson’s usual effervescence is enveloped by Monk’s piano. Take the elementary, walking-sixths blues “Misterioso”, where Milt improvises as he would any other blues, yet Monk’s support figures make the vibes sound like icing on the cake. Monk’s own “Misterioso” solos focus on split seconds (the master take) or ornate unpredictability (the alternate). The obtuse chordal theme of “Evidence” isn’t stated until the end of this version, underneath Milt’s ongoing improvisations. The first A section of “Epistrophy” is underlined by a triplet piano vamp that creates a boatload of tension, and the tune’s zig-zagging chords keep Milt from racing too far ahead in his solo. I don’t think these are definitive versions of the pieces, yet they are quite daring for the time.

From the same session come takes of “All the Things You Are” and “I Should Care”, both sung by Pancho Hagood in a mannered style. Milt and Monk get half-chorus solos. Monk would revisit “I Should Care” as a solo piece in later years, and one can hear some of his ideas already present behind Hagood’s crooning. For the instrumental tracks, this RVG is a must-have for Monk collectors, and Jackson’s fans will find joy in the ‘52 session. The collection proves that Bags was a mallet-wielding wizard, and also that Monk was a sorcerer with a growing book of spells.

Rodney Kendrick
We Don't Die, We Multiply
July 1996 / Verve

Trio work from pianist Kendrick, backed by Tarus Mateen on bass and Turu Alexander on drums. Not one for melodic subtlety or ease, the heavy-handed Kendrick emphasizes percussive attacks and wayward spaces, which actually bring some authenticity to his take on Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” (where he cleverly interpolates bits of “Little Rootie Tootie”). On the other hand, his blunt keystrokes weigh down “Just One of Those Things”, an odd standard choice for a band more enchanted with syncopation and force. And in that regard, we have the obstinate rhythms of the African “Jahjuka” and the monstrous “Fight the Beast” (with the bassline of doom), both of which are aggressive fun. Later in the program, “Mystery of Love” is like the dark cousin of Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece”, an unsettled oasis of sorts. Best, perhaps, is the throwaway “Around the Corner”, lulling the listener with reflective chords and a rim-click groove before Kendrick’s syncopated octaves enter the picture apropos nothing. At which point the track fades, as if this nonchalant development was the point of the tune’s brief existence. Overall, not bad, and the stomping bits will appeal to fans of MMW, or even The Bad Plus.

Roland Kirk
April & Sept. 1962 / Mercury

This early Kirk album is a very jazzy effort with an occasional “what was that?” prompted by the multi-axe attack. Backed by Andrew Hill, Vernon Martin, and Henry Duncan on the first session, and Wynton Kelly, Martin, and Roy Haynes on the second, Kirk plays all sorts of reeds on a variety of tunes. Originals include the lovely “Stritch in Time” waltz (very Coltrane-like) and the charging “3 in 1 Without the Oil”, which has touches of dissonance and a cool flute break. J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” is cheered up a tad (give a dog a bone), while Kirk renders the theme of Loesser’s “I Believe in You” on tenor, then stritch (or manzello?), then combined horns. That’s Kirk’s best trait, I think - using his arsenal for dynamic purposes. Anyway, “I Believe in You” is an irresistible sample of Kirk’s pure jazz feel.

The bonus tracks include an alternate of the nifty title tune and a rave-up of Monk’s “Let’s Call This”. Kirk connoisseurs may or may not rate Domino very highly (because it’s not as “original” as his later music), but I happen to appreciate his style more in semi-traditional settings, and in any case, there are a few moments here that ditch protocol.

John McLaughlin
Jan. 1969 / Polydor

Despite all the high-octane fusion and accomplished acoustic visions to follow, Extrapolation remains one of guitarist McLaughlin’s most likeable and unique efforts. Joined by John Surman on baritone and soprano saxes, Brian Odges on bass, and Tony Oxley on drums, McLaughlin explores a catchy niche between jazz and rock. Apart from a few rapid runs, his guitar doesn’t grab as much attention as his tunes do, from neo-boppers like “Extrapolation” and “Spectrum” to the altered blues templates of “Arjen’s Bag” and “Binky’s Beam”. (Or is it “Binky’s Dream”? The liner card and the CD do not agree.) On other pieces, Surman’s husky saxes bring life to McLaughlin’s suggestive chords, and Oxley leaves a lot of question marks over his grooves, though he leans toward bar-less swing for the most part. We also get a taste of free jazz (“Two for Two”), and on a couple of tracks, McLaughlin recoils into a meditative state. Not much of the music indicates what would be in store for Johnny Mac, but if you sped up “Binky’s” and added more electricity, you’d have a prototypical Mahavishnu Orchestra piece.

Medeski Martin and Wood
Best of 1991-1996
released 1999 / Gramavision

I used to own the first few MMW albums, but seeing them live (in the mid-90s) made the most impression – crammed into a club, standing a few feet away from John Medeski’s workstation of Hammond organ and vintage keyboards, hearing their funky netherworld improvs. I needed elbow room from all the stoned hippies, you know, who undulated like zombies to the backbeats and looked lost otherwise. For me, this was high-interplay jazz that just happened use a variety of electrified grooves, when it wasn’t free of pulse altogether. This collection samples those early years, before the hippie-hop connections got more blatant, although you can tell by some of the selections from Shack Man (1996) that the group was starting to feel that striking a groove was effort enough. At least there are no turntables on this disc.

Their sound blends the ‘60s aura of the organ with the ‘70s sureness of Chris Wood’s fat basslines and the earthy hesitancy of Billy Martin’s drums, which reference New Orleans ‘second line’ grooves as much as anything else. Mix in the wah-wah electric piano, Martin’s ring-a-ting percussion fills, and a few occasional horns (as on “Bemsha Swing / Lively Up Yourself” from 1993’s It’s a Jungle in Here) and it’s nothing but a good time. They were literally a piano trio for the earliest track here, “Hermeto’s Daydream”, playing off each other with razor sharpness. Tracks from Jungle and 1995’s Friday Afternoon in the Universe add various keyboards for even further explorations into the funky unknown. Medeski’s solos tend to be more dramatic (fragmented bursts, unidentifiable clusters, startling wipes) than linear, but they make sense in their own way. “Chubb Sub”, “The Lover” (spot the Mingus quote), and the quintessential “Beeah” are each strong funk-jazz-jam manifestos, offset by things like “Last Chance to Dance Trance” (a roller rink tango, maybe?) and the aforementioned Monk/Marley mashup. “Where’s Sly” is another horn-buffeted number that reaches some really nice peaks.

The 1996 selections are more laid back, “strancing” out into stoner soundtracks (“Spirit Red Gator”, “Dracula”) that, if nothing else, provide some respite from the more aggressive tracks. That being said, “Bubblehouse” might be the coolest speed-up and slow-down exercise ever, and the spunky outtake “Macha” clears away some of the smoky haze. The live “Night Marchers” succeeds just through the dumb force of its monolithic riff. In sum, if you’ve never heard MMW, this is a good intro to their first few years, while Jungle and Friday Afternoon are my faves of their proper albums. After this phase, they signed with Blue Note and kept rolling, although I bailed out, content with what I’d already seen and heard, and not too keen on their future combustications. Wikki wikki.

Pat Metheny
Question and Answer
Dec. 1989 / Nonesuch

Pat Metheny’s guitar playing often rises to its finest level in a traditional jazz context, which is what you get in this one-off session with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes. The highlights for me are “Solar” and “All the Things You Are”, two classics that withstand a lot of blowing, and the lovely original “Question and Answer”. In between those tunes are “Old Folks”, Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years”, and some softer numbers that might satisfy Metheny’s more laid-back fan base (“Never Too Far Away”, “Change of Heart”, “Three Flights Up”). But even on the slower or more placid tunes, the group never reclines into predictability, and Haynes in particular is a man of many accents.

Along with the tight trio communication, this is a textbook of Metheny licks - the wide intervals and chromatic phrases that dart about and double back on themselves. In “Solar”, for one example, he veers in and out of the chord changes almost recklessly yet manages to tie all of his lines together. So the playing is top notch, but the recording has a lulling monotony throughout, where Metheny’s darkened tone sits beneath the drums. The Nonesuch remaster is a bit cleaner than the original Geffen CD, though the mix is still imbalanced. Anyway, once zeroed in, you can hear Pat in amazing form.

Modern Jazz Quartet
European Concert
April 1960 / Atlantic

Originally released in two LP volumes, this much-praised live set is now available on one CD (Collectables, 2006). Sometimes the MJQ gets knocked for being too reserved or neoclassical, but they really helped ‘dignify’ jazz and bring it to audiences worldwide. Plus, they’re class musicians; John Lewis’ piano, Milt Jackson’s bluesy vibes, and the limber bass and drums of Percy Heath and Connie Kay all bond into an elegant package. For sure, portions of this concert step lightly (the contrapuntal “Vendome”, the precious waltz “Skating In Central Park”) or get academically cute (a “Round Midnight” that I cannot make head or tail of). But for the most part, classics like “Django”, “Bags’ Groove”, and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” represent the MJQ at their melodic, easy-swinging best. “Django” encapsulates the group’s multi-paneled approach, as the downcast opening slips into a groovier section of solos, then back again. I’m also partial to “Festival Sketch” and “The Cylinder”, two of the more invigorating selections. Listen closely to the ballads, too, where Jackson improvises from the get-go in “I Remember Clifford”, and how delicately “Odds Against Tomorrow” unfolds. The similarity between piano and vibes gives the MJQ a fairly static sound, but sometimes this works to their advantage – Lewis and Jackson seem to share one mind when trading bars at the end of “I’ll Remember April”.

The recording quality is fine, though there’s a glaring skip/edit in the midst of “The Pyramid”. Since that’s not one of my favorite tracks, I’m not too bummed. For another comprehensive MJQ document, check out The Last Great Concert, recorded in 1974 and featuring several of the same tunes along with plenty more. Or you might want to backtrack to the early album Django, recorded with original drummer Kenny Clarke.

Northwest Passage
Sept-Oct 1996 / Intuition

The long-running group Oregon resumes its legacy nicely with this album. Core members Ralph Towner (acoustic guitars, piano, keyboards), Paul McCandless (saxes, oboe, etc), and Glen Moore (bass) are joined by drummers Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Mark Walker, who underline the group’s multi-ethnic outlook. The strongest pieces mix serpentine consonance with jazzy spark (“Take Heart”, “Fortune Cookie”, “Yet to Be”) and highlight the rich sound of the band. The rendition of “Joyful Departure” misses the concision of Towner’s solo guitar version (on Ana), yet the guitar-percussion interplay is excellent. At times, the music falls toward lite-jazz, as in the maudlin melodies and cushy synth pads of “Lost in the Hours” and “Claridade”. However, such moments are offset by Moore’s pointed “L’Assassino Che Suona” and interludes that range from downsized jams (“Don’t Knock on My Door”, “Over Your Shoulder”) to ambient jaunts (“Under a Dorian Sky”, the title track). The most intense track is “Nightfall”, where a stealthy beat supports a jagged 12-string vamp (not unlike Miles’ “It’s About That Time”) and wailing sopranino. The album has a few other peaks and is certainly recommended to Towner/Oregon aficionados.

Duke Pearson
Sweet Honey Bee
Dec. 1966 / Blue Note RVG

In the disarming title ditty, a cheery flute theme (James Spaulding) over a skipping rhythm recalls all the placid TV theme tunes you’ve never heard from the era. Need some lightheartedness in the collection? Blue Note’s house pianist and artist-producer liaison has got the answer. Pearson as a composer is mostly concerned with melody, and he calls on Spaulding, Freddie Hubbard, and Joe Henderson to give voice. The material, for the most part, doesn’t bring out their strengths, even if the tunes are on paper somewhat challenging. “Sudel”, for example, sounds a lot more pedestrian than it really is. “Empathy” hints at contemporary moods, with a flute/trumpet theme to illuminate its dark hallways. All Blue Note records from this period were required by law to include at least one danceable, bluesy hit, and “Big Bertha” is as fun an example as any other. For a luminescent highlight, turn to “Gaslight”, a 22-bar piece which according to Pearson “gives you the feeling that it’s always going up. You somehow no longer hear the point from which you started.” So true, and Henderson navigates the chromatic playground with assurance.

Terje Rypdal
June 1978 / ECM

A meeting between texturally minded guitarist Rypdal, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. In these six scenarios (they aren’t really tunes), the ethereal strings are held aloft by Jack’s cymbals and skins. Occasionally a guitar or bowed bass melody steers the music on a certain path, but mostly, things ebb and flow like the weather, or a relaxing dream. Rypdal sometimes adds organ to the mix, although it’s almost indistinguishable from his cloudy guitar chords. I like his spacious approach, and the soft yet piercing sustain of his lead tone. The chameleonic “Sunrise” rises and descends beautifully, and Jack does some excellent drumming near the end. Vitous’ “Will” sounds just as entrancing as it did on Weather Report’s Sweetnighter. A couple of other tracks go overboard on the dreaminess, but the free “Flight” supplies some aggression, and “Seasons” closes the album with the most varied arrangement, including guitar synth. This isn’t a typical guitar trio effort by any means; it’s more for listeners who want obscure atmosphere.

Matthew Shipp
By the Law of Music
Aug. 1996 / hat Art

Billed as the Matthew Shipp “String” Trio, Shipp’s piano, Mat Maneri’s violin, and William Parker’s bass act in accordance of free improv laws. The principles of recapitulation and variation are in effect, as certain themes recur in the dozen separate improvisations. Yet the tenuous thematic unity is merely an academic side effect, as the real attraction is in Shipp’s immediate act at the keyboard, which knows no past or future. Shipp postulates several ideas at a clip, intensely concentrated, occasionally perching on repetitive figures or microcosmic expositions. He leaves no key untouched, working the whole range of the piano with precision, posing abstract questions to himself and then answering them. He fills both iterations of “Grid” by himself - audacious, impromptu piano on par with Taylor or Jarrett. Both Maneri and Parker seem employed for sonic texture as much as note choices; the violin is a grating counterpoint to the piano, and Parker shoulders the activities like a downtown Atlas. When the trio rises as one in force - “Whole Movement”, or “P X” - it’s a thing of ugly beauty. Elsewhere, they hold aloof conversations that Shipp tends to dominate. Small doses make the album easier to assimilate, and there’s a lot to digest. It ends with an antagonistic version of Duke’s “Solitude”, played as if the group (especially Maneri) hates the song. How much more effective it would have been to play the song straight, contrasting the freedom of the rest of the disc.

Pete LaRoca Sims
Turkish Women at the Bath
May 1967 / 32 Jazz

Everyone I’ve ever loaned this CD to wound up getting their own copy. I’m sure they found the modal quartet music very likeable from the first listen on (as did I), and I suspect they were also hooked by how the recording borders on the psychedelic (for jazz, anyway). John Gilmore’s tenor sax is slightly electrified, Chick Corea’s piano sounds like it’s coming from the end of a hallway, and leader LaRoca’s drums sound even farther away. Only Walter Booker’s bass occupies a fixed point in space; the other three voices have artificial distance. But that’s cool, because it matches the exotic modes (mostly Middle Eastern variants) and rhythms. The music sounds like it’s coming from somewhere, and it puts the listener in the position of chosen receptor. However, take away the reverb and stereo shifts and you’ve got a typical postbop album.

Gilmore is pretty much the star of the show, sounding like Coltrane’s spiritual cousin (“Love Planet”). Corea breaks out in “Marjoun” and elsewhere provides a couple of the album’s most insinuating riffs. One is the locked hands backdrop to LaRoca’s drum solo in “Dancing Girls” - sort of like Morello’s “Take Five” from another planet - and the other is the sad piano line of “Bliss” that trickles down over and over like droplets on a windowpane. Both tunes create unforgettable moods, as does the title track. Booker’s bass ostinatos play a big role in the music, too. The only piece I’ve never quite embraced is the anxious “Sin Street”. After that, the album closer “And So” recaps some of the preceding themes.

This title was originally issued on Muse and then disappeared for a long time before emerging from 32 Jazz’s underdog kennel in 1997. Whether or not it’s still in print, I don’t know, but it’s worth looking for.

Cecil Taylor
Oct. 1966 / Blue Note RVG

A monumental album in which pianist Cecil Taylor explores the grand-scale potential of free jazz. The two lengthy pieces “Conquistador” and “With (Exit)” both open with nice melodies and then move through various improvising areas, some volatile, some mysterious. Jimmy Lyons plays a strong, singing alto sax, countered by Bill Dixon’s precarious trumpet. Underneath, two basses (Henry Grimes, Alan Silva) and drummer Andrew Cyrille play fragmented rhythms, and Cecil oversees everything with splintery piano. There are solos, in the basic sense, but the constant interplay and absence of explicit swing exemplify true freedom. (Unlike Ornette’s Free Jazz, which was tied to swing at its core and had barely any dynamics.) Everything feels cradled by the energy of the group, such as the Coltrane-like groove and melody in the middle of “Conquistador”. I marvel at how the other players sometimes feed off of Taylor’s piano kinetics. Instead of a civilized vamp, for example, Taylor might repeat a grandiose, keyboard-spanning figure a few times and thus steer the ship in a new direction. Cyrille’s drumming is fantastic, too.

Despite some duff moments, I say the disc is monumental because of the formal structure (you can hear the music following a long roadmap) and because of the group’s collective spirit. Also, it’s not a noise-making or angst-ridden album, more considerately abstract.

John Taylor
Apr. 2002 / ECM

British pianist Taylor is heard here in a candid trio setting with support from bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. Taylor’s music, so consonant and relaxed on the surface, is of a rare strength and depth, and it creates its own emotional space. The closed harmonic circuits and sparse melodies of “The Bowl Song” and “Between Moons” set up an approach that relies as much on chordal detours as it does on finespun single lines. The pace and touch are hypnotic on the slow vamping title track, and the inventions on the sole standard “How Deep is the Ocean” brighten the song anew. The “Ocean” arrangement starts with dramatic pause and then the core of the song flowers in a delightful way. A couple of tunes by Ralph Towner and Kenny Wheeler point up the “ECM-ness” of the date, and the Taylor original “Field Day” provides an uplifting finale. The sound of the CD is superb; the instruments all have a punchy proximity in the mix, while a slight reverb lets reflections hang in the air. Definitely recommended to piano fans.

Larry Young
Nov. 1965 / Blue Note RVG

One of the very best Blue Note titles; heck, one of the best jazz records ever. Reasons why: Young takes the organ beyond soul-jazz into advanced hardbop territory, Joe Henderson turns in yet another ace sideman performance, Woody Shaw contributes three awesome, challenging tunes, and, as a bonus, I consider this Elvin Jones’ finest drumming on record. (Coltrane devotees might dispute that, but I’ll stick to it.) Each of the four musicians brings something special to the party, and the result is a burning, inspiring record. It’s not just a musical synergy; the actual sound of the quartet is dark and deep.

Maybe the biggest story is trumpeter Shaw, only twenty and already writing such complicated material as “The Moontrane” and “Beyond All Limits”. Both invigorating tunes run the soloists through harmonic gauntlets. Shaw also writes the opening “Zoltan”, which begins as a march then opens into an Elvoid rhythm with wobbly organ chords. Henderson’s “If” repositions standard 12-bar blues changes into something more abstract and befitting this quartet; they can either play the blues in the solos or go elsewhere. In an organ/drum duet version of “Monk’s Dream”, Young finds all kinds of knick-knacks in the tune’s brilliant corners. “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” has a wonderful Henderson solo with Elvin on brushes and Young burbling the B-3.

Anything else I could say would just be subjective gushing. The album doesn’t have any weakness I can detect, and its strengths mount track by track. The leader mixes the organ’s electric soul with the demanding harmonic requirements of the material. Joe, Woody, and Elvin have rarely sounded better. Rudy’s recording is faultless. The album cover is cool. Five golden stars for an outstanding forty minutes.

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